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New Study Explains Why People Saw ‘The Dress’ Differently

2 minute read

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve likely heard about the “The Dress” (if you don’t know what The Dress is, read this). It puzzled some researchers too, but now a team of scientists have published a new study shedding light on the phenomenon.

In a small study published in the journal Current Biology, researchers from Giessen University and University of Bradford learned that people vary when it comes to color perception, and this is largely due to differences in how people perceive light. What was possibly throwing people off was the lighting in the photo. In general, daylight lighting can look blueish around mid afternoon and it can look yellowish in the morning or later in the evening. Normally, people use reference points and surrounding context to perceive colors and they unknowingly will filter out the blue or yellow-hued lighting.

However, the photo of the dress had no reference points. There were no red or green colors, for example. Therefore, people looking at the dress were not able to filter out the lighting that was influencing their perception of the color. “The perceived hue in one of the groups of observers is related to the fact that a white dress was exposed to cool bluish light,” study author Karl Gegenfurtner, a professor in the department of psychology at Geissen University in a statement. “Just as well it could be a blue dress which was overexposed by warm light.”

In their study, the researchers also noted that even among people who saw the dress one way or the other, they were not necessarily seeing the dress in exactly the same way. While they generally agree, some may see the dress colors on a spectrum that ranges from very light blue to dark blue and from yellow to brown. To discover this, the researchers showed volunteers the photo and then had them separately adjust colors to match what colors they saw in the photo.

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Portrait of Rainier III, Prince of Monaco and Princess Grace (Grace Kelly) on their wedding day on April 19, 1956 in Monaco. Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
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First Lady Jackie Kennedy wearing a fitted silk apricot dress and triple strand of pearls, walking through crowds at Udaipur during visit to India, 1962.Art Rickerby—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Marilyn Monroe poses over the updraft of a New York subway grating while in character for the filming of 'The Seven Year Itch' in Manhattan on Sept. 15, 1954. Matty Zimmerman—AP
This is a photo from page 2991 of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report showing Monica Lewinsky's dress which was tested for physical evidence of a relationship between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. OIC/AP
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Jennifer Lopez wears Versace at the 42nd Grammy Awards held in Los Angeles on Feb. 23, 2000.Scott Gries—Getty Images
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President Barack Obama introduced his wife Michelle at the Commander-In-Chief Ball after his inauguration held at the National Building Museum in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009. David Stephenson—Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT/Getty Images

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